December 21, 2014

A degree of open-ness: University of Texas offers online degree completion route

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Hamilton, R. (2011) UT System Launches Online Route to Degree Completion The Texas Tribune, December 13

I complained in my retrospective of e-learning for 2011 that some institutions that promote open content are not open to access for students wanting qualifications. Open-ness is not black or white but comes in varying shades. Often even within systems where students have been accepted and are paying full tuition, there are internal barriers to degree completion. I was therefore pleased to see that the University of Texas System is creating a new path to completion through online courses for students who attempted but — for whatever reason — have been unable to finish their college degree.

‘The Finish@UT program, which launched last week, is a selection of UT-System-approved online courses aimed primarily at students between ages 25 and 35 who have already amassed credits toward an undergraduate degree. “Particularly those students who have had various life issues intervene and cannot get to campus on a regular basis,” said Martha Ellis, associate vice chancellor for community college partnerships at the UT System.

Ellis said the primary benefits of the program for students are the flexible scheduling and degree personalization. “We want to know: How can we tailor a degree to get you a quality degree best utilizing the coursework that you’ve taken to date?” she said.’

This is a question that should be asked (and answered) within all post-secondary educational jurisdictions. For too long in North America we have had artificial and arbitrary barriers to degree completion that are the result of institutional autonomy and hubris. Well done Texas!

The digital future of higher education, on video

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Videos have now been posted of presentations at two conferences in British Columbia, both looking at the future of digital learning.

The digital future of higher education, Thompson Rivers University

This conference was held at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops in February. It was organized by Norm Friesen, Canada Research Chair in E-Learning Practices.

Altogether there are four videos from this conference, all available from here

1. I gave the opening keynote on the topic ‘The Challenge of Change’, drawing mainly on the results from our book, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education.’ I argued that universities and colleges were unduly cautious in their goals for learning technologies, and that it was difficult to justify the high cost of learning technologies from the results of current mainstream practice. (60 minutes with questions and discussion).

2. The second keynote speaker was Michael A. Peters, Professor of Education at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He drew a broad brush picture of social media, web 2.0 and open education. He made the point that social media/web 2.0 were primarily commercially driven, and in some ways were usurping the roles of public education, by controlling and aggregating access to knowledge and information driven by commercial goals. He argued that open education (OERs, open publishing, open pedagogy, open learning systems, etc.) offered an alternative to the commercialization of the Internet, enabling universities and the public education system to regain the role of organizing and managing knowledge for the public good. (60 minutes with questions and discussion).

3. The first panel session was on the digital future of higher education in British Columbia. The speakers were Cameron Beddome, Thompson Rivers University, Edward Hamilton, Capilano University, and David Porter, BC Campus. David Porter talked about the five challenges and five discontinuities (open education, mobile learning, engagement of learners, social learning, shared services) facing higher education, with lots of examples of the ways new technologies are changing education and how students learn. Edward Hamilton explored the history of sociotechnical systems from a perspective bridging Foucauldian genealogy and critical theory of technology. He rejected the ideological positions of ‘essentialism’ and ‘instrumentalism’ and argued that technology is a social as well as a technical process. In the context of education, he sees teachers as educational designers, both influenced by technology, and also influencing how technology is used. It is important to integrate technology use within a pedagogical framework. Cameron Beddome presented an explanation/description of the well-established principles of open learning that derive from the open university movement that dates back to the late 1960s.

4. The second panel session was a discussion/debate between Mark Bullen, BCIT, and Norm Friesen, on the proposition that the net generation will revolutionize education. Mark Bullen argued against this, and although Norm did not personally accept the opposite position, he gamely put forward the arguments of Don Olcott, Marc Prensky and other supporters of the notion.

Just ID

I’ve already posted a report on this instructional design workshop, but the organizers have posted both the report and the video (35 minutes) of my summary of the discussions at the workshop on which the report was based.

Comment

All of the above sessions dealt with the future of digital learning in one way or another. As we all know, predicting the future  is somewhat unreliable, but certainly trends can be identified, as can their implications.

These presentations really fall into two camps: theory and practice. As the psychologist Kurt Lewin said, there is nothing more pragmatic than a good theory. Michael Peters and Ted Hamilton both provided very thoughtful analysis of the underlying social and philosophical issues that underpin the Internet, the knowledge society, and their implications for digital learning, universities and the public education system. Norm Friesen and Mark Bullen discussed what this means in terms of the kind of students now entering our higher education institutions, and how we should respond. The ID workshop was all about changing practice in a rapidly developing digital environment.

I share with Michael Peters a concern about the increasing control over knowledge and information that is now being exercised by commercial companies such as Google and Apple. However, commercial control over knowledge is nothing new; it has merely been transferred from broadcasters and publishers to IT companies (and massively scaled up). The fear is that public education institutions (and universities in particular) will be increasingly marginalized with creeping privatization of learning as a consequence. Nevertheless I think that universities in particular, while aware of the changes, have little idea about how best to respond to this challenge. The open education movement is one response, but while important it is not sufficient, in my view.

The three sessions that focused on practice (David Porter’s and both mine, one at TRU and the other at the ID workshop) were attempts to offer practical ways for universities (and colleges) to respond to these challenges.

What appears to be lacking (particularly in Canada) is what I would term a political debate about the role of public education in a digitized world. What policies (if any) should governments be putting in place to protect free and public access to information? What limits (if any) should be placed on commercial companies in the areas of privacy, security, access to and manipulation of information? What should be the rules (if any) regarding intellectual property in a digitalized world? (Canada has been trying to change its copyright legislation, but is in a hopeless mess with it, because government and ultimately the public – you and me – have failed to lay down clear and fair principles to guide the legislation. Instead the government is trying to balance competing interest groups, not all with the same level of resources. The Canadian government – or rather their privacy commissioners – have done a much better job on the privacy side, but most of the thinking here is coming from lawyers, not from educators). How should knowledge be assessed and accredited so that the public is protected from incompetency and fraud? And above all, how should higher education be organized and managed so that it operates in the public interest in a world where information is increasingly controlled by a very small number of semi-monopolistic commercial entities?

I don’t have the answers to these questions (I’m not sure anyone does) but we need increasingly to promote discussion on these issues and bring them to the attention of political leaders, as they affect us all in our daily lives. I’d be really interested in readers’ views about this larger picture in which digital learning finds itself.

Lastly, a comment about media and format. I found it extremely useful to have access to the videos after the event. I was surprised how much I missed when sitting ‘live’ in the audience (and I missed a couple because I had to leave early). One for lecture capture systems.  However, I’ve spent four and a half hours watching all these videos. In particular, I had both a text and a video of my Just ID contribution. The text can be read in five minutes, the video takes 35 minutes.

For busy people, text will win out over video any time, in terms of condensing the message. Nevertheless, there are subtle differences between the two formats. If you really want to analyze the difference between text and video compare the text version with the video version of the Just ID presentation. Although the content is almost identical, the message seems subtly different to me, although it’s hard to put a finger on it. It should be remembered that the video presentation was done on the fly, so to speak, while the text version was carefully written up afterwards. Any reactions from readers on the difference between text and video, specially in terms of time cost-benefits?